Complexity theory and the War on Terror: understanding the self-organising dynamics of leaderless jihad

  • Antoine Bousquet

DOI: 10.1057/jird.2011.24

Cite this article as:
Bousquet, A. J Int Relat Dev (2012) 15: 345. doi:10.1057/jird.2011.24


This article seeks to substantiate theoretically Marc Sageman's claims of a ‘leaderless jihad’ through the application of the conceptual framework offered by the novel scientific paradigm of complexity theory. It is argued that jihadist networks, such as those behind the September 11 attacks and the bombings in London and Madrid, can be profitably understood in terms of complex adaptive systems, emergent organisations that coalesce and self-organise in a decentralised fashion. Complexity sheds new light on the jihadist movement by providing an account of the bottom-up self-organisation of its networks and the systems of distributed intelligence which allow those networks to operate and pursue successful attacks on the basis of partial and localised information, and this despite the strenuous efforts at counter-terrorism deployed by states.


al-Qaeda complex adaptive system jihadism network self-organisation terrorism 

Copyright information

© Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Ltd 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  • Antoine Bousquet
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of PoliticsBirkbeck, University of LondonLondonUK

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